Movies can show fierce battles, high-speed chases, and horrific explosions that most of us will never experience in real life, and I think such sequences properly used make films far more emotionally engaging. Here I've selected movies containing action that is well-integrated into the story. This is my personal, idiosyncratic list of favorites, and it doesnt necessarily reflect the popular wisdom on action movies. For the sake of focus, I've limited my choices to English-language talkies.
'Lawrence of Arabia' (1962)
David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia chronicles the adventures of eccentric Englishman T.E. Lawrence, who rallied the Arabs to fight the Turks during World War I. What I love about this movie is that it's one of the most cinematic films I've ever seen, while at the same time it creates a nuanced character study of the enigmatic, complex Lawrence. I'll never forget Peter O'Toole's intense performance in the title rolehe is the very embodiment of obsession.
'Apocalypse Now' (1979)
Loosely based on Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness, Francis Ford Coppola's dizzyingly cinematic Apocalypse Now brings the horror, chaos, and madness of war to vivid life. During the Vietnam War, Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) travels into the Cambodian jungle with orders to kill Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), a man claimed by U.S. military commanders to be insane. In 2001, Coppola released a 49-minute-longer director's cut of the movie under the title Apocalypse Now Redux.
'Paths of Glory' (1957)
I think Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece Paths of Glory is a powerful antiwar film that has heartbreaking battle scenes. During World War I, French generals assign a regiment the task of taking an impenetrable German position. The mission fails, and three enlisted men must face court-martial. I find the performance by Kirk Douglas as a French officer compelling. Also, I can never forget the mood created by the melancholy song sung by Kubrick's wife as the movie winds down.
'The Bridge on the River Kwai' (1957)
David Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai tells the curious tale of a British army officer who commands a group of POWs building a bridge for the Japanese in World War II Burma. I've always admired Alec Guinness' Oscar-winning performance as the brave Col. Nicholson, who ends up going a little mad. To me, Nicholson personifies a good man who gets so wrapped up in his own world that he loses sight of the moral implications of his actions.
'All Quiet on the Western Front' (1930)
For me, All Quiet on the Western Front is a poetic work that remains the most powerful of all pacifist, antiwar films. Based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Erich Maria Remarque, the story follows a group of idealistic young Germans who leave the classroom to fight in World War I. They all become disillusioned and are killed in combat. There's a memorable sequence where the central character Paul Bäumer (Lew Ayres) is trapped in a shell hole with a mortally wounded Frenchman.
Platoon is a violent, dizzying, disorienting, brutally realistic depiction of the horror of war. The film's narrator, Pvt. Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen), is a patriotic young man who volunteered to fight in Vietnam, but everything he knew and believed in before coming there is challenged. Chris finds himself caught up in a strange tug of war between two NCOs played by Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe. I feel that this is Oliver Stone's most personal and moving film.
'Saving Private Ryan' (1998)
I see Saving Private Ryan as Steven Spielberg's tribute to American World War II soldiers. It opens with an elderly man visiting a military cemetery in Normandy, and his thoughts drift back to June 6, 1944. In one of the greatest combat sequences I know of, the film shows the massive D-Day landing. Capt. Miller (Tom Hanks) survives the landing and leads a mission to rescue Pvt. Ryan (Matt Damon), whose brothers have been killed in combat.
'Kill Bill' (2003-2004)
Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill was released as two separate movies, Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003) and Kill Bill: Vol. 2(2004), but I see the two as comprising a unified single work. The movies feature a bravura performance by Uma Thurman, and it seems to me that over the span of the two films, Tarantino shows us her character's spiritual journey. Vol. 1 boasts amazing martial-arts sequences and cinematic virtuosity, while Vol. 2 settles down to more talk and greater psychological depth.
'Star Wars' Trilogy (1977-1983)
I've always found George Lucas' first three Star Wars films, now collectively known as the Star Wars Trilogy, to be lots of fun. I see these three moviesnow individually called Episode IV: A New Hope (1977), Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983)as forming a unified whole. They are set in some distant galaxy during a civil war, and I would say they tell an elaborate coming-of-age tale about the maturation of Luke Skywalker.
'The Lord of the Rings' Trilogy (2001-2003)
I think Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy, taken as a whole, is a dazzling achievement. Adapted from J.R.R. Tolkien's long novel, the movies tell a tale spanning three films: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), The Two Towers (2002), and The Return of the King (2003). The story chronicles a battle between forces of good and evil in an imaginary world resembling medieval Europe. My favorite character is Frodo (Elijah Wood), a gentle soul who must destroy a magic ring.